Lizabeth Scott & Too Late For Tears

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A somewhat short riff on Too Late for Tears... 

“I let you in because, well, housewives can get awfully bored sometimes…”

“What is it, Jane? I just don’t understand you.” So asks Arthur Kennedy’s upright husband to Lizabeth Scott’s kinked, cryptic wife in Byron Haskin’s Too Late for Tears, a movie as much about one woman suffering her own private hell (infernal boredom with the late 1940’s bonds of traditional marriage, a disgust with patronizing rich people) as it is about a coveted bag of loot. And of course, murder – murder enacted by this “femme fatale” who hides her new furs in the place her husband wouldn’t look and she likely loathes – the kitchen. (He, in fact, finds them and confronts her, and this is where I wonder if he spends more time in the kitchen than she does – which makes me like him more) But she’s not hiding her luxury pieces because she bought them with just his money. The money, in many ways, is her money. Money that quite literally dropped into her lap (dropped into the back seat of her car). Money he is nervous about. Money he didn’t earn. Money she wants to keep. Money that, for her, means freedom from convention. Money means security and fun. For her. He views it with understandable apprehension. He states: “I just don’t understand you,” and you ask yourself if he ever did.

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The movie opens with Kennedy’s Alan and Scott’s Jane driving to a swanky get together one evening in Los Angeles. Jane, cool and beautiful and at times otherworldly in that distinct and timeless Lizabeth Scott way (she’s both dreamy-eyed and steely, rough voiced and soft, vulnerable and determinedly self-sufficient, smart as hell and spacey), objects to attending. Why? She’s says why. And she's pretty honest about it.

Jane: I... I tried to tell you before we left home. I... I just don't like being patronized, that's all. I... I don't think I can take another evening of it.

Alan: Patronized? Oh, sweetheart, Ralph is one of the nicest guys I...

Jane: You know it isn't Ralph. It's his diamond-studded wife, looking down her nose at me like... like her big ugly house up there looks down on Hollywood. Please. I'm just not going. Slow down and find a place to turn.

Alan: Oh, Jane, you're crazy. Alice likes you.

Jane: Please, Alan. I mean it. I'm just not going.

They don’t go to that "patronizing" party because at that very moment, as Jane physically attempts to get him to turn the car around, a bag of loot is thrown into the back of their car by a mysterious sender. God? The devil? Whoever it is -- of all the good luck. And bad luck. When Jane discovers their devil-god-given bounty, she takes charge in a way that befuddles her husband and delights the viewer (we can’t help it  -- Scott makes her such a strange pleasure). Alan never saw this side of her before? He knows her financial frustrations, but what the hell does he think his wife does all day while he’s at work? Stare at recipes of meatloaf? Gleefully chat with his sister who lives next door? It’s not that you don’t feel for Alan, you do (and especially up to the point where she does him in – in one of those little boats in Westlake Park). And as Alan watches Jane becoming more and more obsessive, you start sensing a fatalism in him too. Not just because of her, but because of what he’s supposed to mean as a man— and as a provider. Or, perhaps, what he’s supposed to mean as a good person. Alan wants to report the money to the police, and Jane wants to keep it. So, when the two return home, managing to get past the real recipients and the cops, they empty out the estimated 100 thousand on the bed. Alan is concerned. Jane is practically orgasmic with all of that green luxuriating on the sheets. Surely, to her, this is a more exciting action than anything she’s ever seen or done on that mattress.

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And then Dan Duryea shows up… Not right then but a few days later. Duryea’s Danny walks into Jane’s apartment and starts asking far too many questions -- but she maintains her cool. He takes in lovely Jane and as he gets to know her (or thinks he gets to know her) and begins gathering information that her husband may be cluelessly unaware of – that this lady is crooked, perhaps evil (maybe discontent?). Danny likes it. It gets him going. But Too Late for Tears (written by Roy Huggins from his serialized Saturday Evening Post novel) doesn’t cook up some rote hot-to-trot attraction between them. Never do we think Jane ever gets off on the bad boy sexuality of Danny, instead, she senses something else in him – weakness, depression, that’s he’s not as much the bad boy as he looks. And he’s not. Danny may come in all Duryea sleazy-cool, rolling his menacing words like a verbal cocked eyebrow, but you wind up feeling heartbroken for him thanks to Duryea’s vulnerable, moving performance. He’s two-bit, desperate, he drinks too much and he’s messed up even before he met Jane. He’s not even that great of a crook. We watch him unravel as he’s bettered by Jane time and again until he collapses, poisoned by her in his crummy little apartment. His female neighbor, maybe sometimes lover (we wonder – she seems to care more about him than anyone else does), doesn’t even assume foul play as the cops question her.  She exclaims: “He killed himself. Oh, God have mercy on him."  She cries. He didn’t kill himself, but in the fatalistic world of Too Late for Tears, he kind of did.

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Which leads us back to Jane. She’s high tailed it to Mexico. I haven’t even mentioned the annoying man following her (played by Don DeFore – the most unlikable “good” guy and no one you care about) who knows her even deeper secret (that she murdered her first husband before Alan). I like to block that guy out because, honestly, you are, at this point, rooting for Jane.  Maybe you're not supposed to, but I think the movie actually knows this, in spite of how bad she is. How many women, especially when this film was released (1949) yearned to run away from home with 100K? And today, the viewer is asking similar questions – wouldn’t we be tempted by dirty money thrown into our car? At least for a second? Jane is murderous, yes, and we take a moment to lament when Alan and especially sad Danny are disposed of, but the remarkable Lizabeth Scott is such an intriguing presence, so diabolical, yet so dazed, so elusive, but so understandably disgruntled – a woman whom men want to mold as either the perfect wife or the perfect femme fatale (Danny coos: “Don't ever change, tiger. I don't think I'd like you with a heart.”) – that we cheer for her to smash all of those male preconceptions she's been saddled with. She’s all herself and she’s all she’s got. And so, in spite of her evil deeds, we want her to make it in Mexico. Seeing her in a nice hotel, in her elegant gown, gorgeous and in charge, with a new gentleman on her arm (she declines any nighttime offer – there is a suitcase of money upstairs after all), we think, for a moment, “Jane has made it! She made it!” We know she's going to eventually suffer for it, so we give ourselves that moment to allow Jane her freedom, even if she's done such terrible things. 

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The picture swirls into a mad melodramatic dreamscape that, to me, becomes a kind of allegory of one housewife’s single-minded attempt to bust out of the binding expectations placed on her. I once compared the picture’s ending to Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, in which another damn suitcase aids in the protagonist’s downfall. But Sterling Hayden, watching his money fly all over the tarmac, looks at it and says “Eh, what’s the difference?” Scott, instead, trips over her’s and tumbles off the hotel room terrace. It’s shocking and yet graceful.  She’s not watching the green fly away with the fatalistic acceptance of Hayden – no – she goes down together with it. She goes down with what she loves. At least she went down with that. And even in death, she creates a gorgeous tableau: clad in an evening gown, smashed on the cement, but looking like an angel, there is all of that money, her money, falling around her like snow. What’s the difference? She’s not getting married again, that’s for sure.


Happy Birthday Marilyn Monroe

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Happy Birthday, Marilyn Monroe.

Here's a letter Thomas Pynchon wrote to his former Cornell friend and roommate, writer Jules Siegel, in the early 1960s. MM is brought up -- she "got out of the game" as Pynchon wrote.  Siegel published a portion of the letter in a 1965 issue of Cavalier magazine. He wrote that, "Pynchon, hiding out from the world in Mexico City, wrote on blue-line graph paper to a suicidal writer friend." 

Pynchon:

"When Marilyn Monroe got out of the game, I wrote something like, 'Southern California's special horror notwithstanding, if the world offered nothing, nowhere to support or make bearable whatever her private grief was, then it is that world, and not she, that is at fault.'

"I wrote that in the first few shook-up minutes after hearing the bulletin sandwiched in between Don and Phil Everly and surrounded by all manner of whoops and whistles coming out of an audio signal generator, like you are apt to hear on the provincial radio these days. But I don't think I'd take those words back.

"The world is at fault, not because it is inherently good or bad or anything but what it is, but because it doesn't prepare us in anything but body to get along with.

"Our souls it leaves to whatever obsolescences, bigotries, theories of education workable and un, parental wisdom or lack of it, happen to get in its more or less Brownian (your phrase) pilgrimage between the cord-cutting ceremony and the time they slide you down the chute into the oven, while the guy on the Wurlitzer plays Aba Daba Honeymoon because you had once told somebody it was the nadir of all American expression; only they didn't know what nadir meant but it must be good because of the vehemence with which you expressed yourself."

And here's my piece on Marilyn for the Los Angeles Review of Books -- how she was on my mind, and everywhere, even on a blanket in Death Valley...


Always Try: Jacques Demy's Model Shop

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Originally published at The New Beverly

“He rushed out and rented a white convertible, and he’d drive around L.A. He’d call and say, ‘It’s a dream here!’” – Agnès Varda on her husband Jacques Demy in Los Angeles

In Jacques Demy’s Model Shop, George Matthews (Gary Lockwood), a 26-year-old unemployed architect, drives. It’s 1968 in Los Angeles (1969 when the movie was released), and he drives and drives and drives – the movie loves to watch him drive (and some of us love to watch him drive) – he drives all through the city – at day, at night. He listens to classical music, rock, and the news on his car radio, mostly about the Vietnam War. Sometimes he drives silent, only the traffic sounds and the wind in his ears. Sitting at the wheel of his vintage M.G. convertible (on the verge of being repossessed) he’s both running away from and towards … something. Some injurious future – he would like to avoid what he views as possible soul-crushing employment or even death (the draft is hanging over him) – and he would like to experience something fulfilling and new, exciting – love? Creation? Keep driving.

The driving matches his mental state, which is not aimless exactly (though his live-in aspiring actress girlfriend played by Alexandra Hay would probably disagree – she is not happy with him at the beginning of the film and their relationship, understandably, is falling apart). But all of this driving is maybe more like searching, wondering what the hell is going to happen, and at the end, as he says himself, trying. And so, he drives. And within this movie that occurs in 24 hours of this young man’s life – he seems to be driving through half of it. This driving is his mental state, and this is Los Angeles. He is full of undefined longing. As Joan Didion wrote, “A good part of any day in Los Angeles is spent driving, alone, through streets devoid of meaning to the driver, which is one reason the place exhilarates some people, and floods others with an amorphous unease.”

You get the feeling George is filled with both – exhilaration in bursts (when the geography of the place inspires him) and an amorphous unease – there are young men and women and bright lights and music and sun all around him, but there’s darkness clinging to every inch of it all. Attraction – a beautiful, dream-like woman in white driving a long white convertible – lulls him out of his torpor. She stands stark and elegant and somewhat a bit out of time and place, but there’s something sad about her – you feel it instantly. Does George as well? You get a sense he does, which makes him more intrigued, more magnetized. George, then, reflects more how Didion continued on her thought:  “There is about these hours spent in transit a seductive unconnectedness.”

Yes, there is that. The seductive. The unconnected. But one reason these hours at the wheel of the automobile are so seductive is the yearning to connect the unconnected. There is something about driving in Los Angeles, driving anywhere in the city, that is formless, yet full of stories – stories within nooks and crannies of shuttered movie theaters or old restaurants or old Hollywood haunts and houses and apartments and hopping club venues. Ghosts haunt the city. That can be unsettling and wonderful and sometimes both at the same time.

But also – the others – the passengers and drivers in the other cars: their stories, their stares, and their own loneliness. Some days it seems it’s a city of, mostly, single passenger cars. It’s often a gorgeous, fascinating city. But there are days where it feels – taking in the sunshine and breathing in the air – chemically off – as in your brain chemicals. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is exactly – those certain days that feel strange yet beautiful, light and dark, but listening to L.A.-made music by the band Love (especially 1967’s “Forever Changes”) or the Beach Boys’ 1966’s “Pet Sounds,” sweeps me into that state of haunted beauty, darkness within sunshine, the enigmatic nature of it, the complexity.

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And so, the woman in white, almost spectral at first, carries a lot more with her than he (he being George) or the viewer might have anticipated – she has a past. And for anyone familiar with Demy, her presence is deepened by her backstory – here in the movie and here in Demy’s work – which seem to swirl together in a personal, tender reverie. With much of Demy, we feel a bittersweet heartache, connections made by chance and often, love that was not returned and, of course, waiting. Driving is a lot of waiting. Making movies is a lot of waiting too.

And sometimes – making movies – you don’t get the person you yearned for – in this case, it was Harrison Ford instead of Gary Lockwood (I think Lockwood is really good here). Columbia didn’t see it and felt Lockwood (after his role in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001), was more suitable. The movie didn’t do well regardless – and has become either a curio or something of a cult film for either Demy-philes, or those simply intrigued by taking in late 1960s Los Angeles – because you see so much of it, you feel its vibe, and you wish a lot of it was still around. But how different this movie might have been received or regarded with Ford? And what to think of Demy’s possible career in Hollywood? Or Ford’s alternate one? One might assume it would have been different. And would Demy have made his superb Donkey Skin?  We’ll never know. And, so, Harrison Ford is even imprinted on the movie, if you know the backstory to it. As Ford tells it in Agnès Varda’s documentary The World of Jacques Demy, he spent time location scouting with Demy, and he and the director did indeed go to a model shop (on Santa Monica Blvd – the exterior painted DayGlo). According to Ford, Demy recreated the interior quite accurately, as you saw it (but, I’m going to assume, with Demy’s visual flair and added color), and he talked about the long narrow corridor they walked down to meet their model – it was painted black. And that they were both shy.

So, here’s Lola (Anouk Aimée) working at such a place. A French woman in Los Angeles, she doesn’t have her work visa, and can only find employment at one of those model shops – a place where men pay by the quarter half hour or half-hour to take pictures of women scantily clad or, obviously, nude (or maybe more if the price is right). So close and yet, so far-distanced by a machine-possessed only in image, a lens and, in a way, defining the only way Demy could capture and enshrine a mysterious and perhaps confusing kind of love at first sight – via his own camera.

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Lola carries a whole past with her, of course, everyone does, but she also carries an entire Demy movie. Two movies, in fact (three if you want to count where her brooding paramour of 1961 ends up – Cherbourg). The foundational movie is, quite appropriately, Lola, Demy’s sublime first picture released in 1961, starring Aimée as Lola, in which Lola worked singing and dancing at a cabaret in Nantes, France, hoping for her great love (and father to her seven-year-old son) to return.

It’s richly rewarding to find all of the inter-connectivity in Demy’s work, so much that you dig for it throughout his movies, afraid you might have missed one reference, one recurring character (and indeed, I may have). It puts you, the viewer, right in his mindset, wondering and longing to assemble what is an intimate fresco of memories or dreams. In Lola, Aimée is much cheerier and more smiling and girlish, while harboring the sadness of waiting for Michel (Jacques Harden). There are imprints of both Michel and young Lola in Aimée’s Lola of Model Shop – she wears a similar white sheath dress, out with a man smitten, here it’s George (in Lola, it’s Roland, played by Marc Michel, who will then fall for Deneuve’s heartbroken and waiting-for-another, Geneviève in Umbrellas of Cherbourg). And then there’s the white convertible she drives. Her beloved Michel opens Lola looking very American in all white clothing including a white Stetson hat and driving a long white convertible Cadillac through Nantes while Lola is not yet aware, he has returned. At the end of Lola, the two reunite and drive off together in that long white Cadillac as lovelorn Roland, sadly walks to a different future.

But as we’ll learn near the end of Model Shop, Lola and Michel will not make it. They will divorce. He’ll fall for another – a gambler in Las Vegas named Jackie Demaistre – from Demy’s second film, Bay of Angels, in which Jackie is played by a tough, but sad-eyed, vulnerable bottled blonde Jeanne Moreau. She, too, is a mother (divorced), going through life at a roulette wheel. Jackie plays with chance, perhaps as a way to control it. In Demy’s universe, chance influences so much of our lives.

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In something like chance, George spies Lola at, of all perfect places within this movie, a parking lot. He’s managed to drive off the repo man for the time being – but only if he can secure 100 dollars to pay off his car loan. He asks a friend who works as a parking attendant for some dough – the friend declines, nicely, since George already owes him money. But there he sees Lola, and follows her (some might view this as creepy), and driving on Sunset he turns to drive up a hill, and finds Lola driving to one of those swanky residences up in the hills – Lola is off to a mysterious meeting or appointment of some kind. She knocks and enters this house. We never know who it is or why or what is happening inside. George sits in his car and then gets out, taking in the view, the sprawling geography of Los Angeles looking beautiful and lonely but full of possibility. He drives away. He picks up a hitchhiker (she rolls a joint – rather expertly as the grass impossibly doesn’t fly out all over the place – and hands it to George for the ride). He deposits her down on Sunset. She walks away – and this being a Demy movie, we almost wonder if she’ll return in some way – she doesn’t. He drives to another friend’s place – the house where the band Spirit practice and live (another imprint of the real invading movie life – this is the actual band who also provide the atmospheric soundtrack for the movie – the gorgeous, melancholic opening tune “Fog” will really stick with you).

These guys are excited about their new record – they have a purpose George doesn’t seem to have, not immediately anyway – and so, here, we see, not burned-out hippies, but men actually creating and achieving. (We wonder what might be in a few more years – the 1970s are upon all of these characters) George sits with Spirit’s lead singer, Jay Ferguson, as he plays a new song on the piano. There’s something really lovely about this moment – watching George listen, and the look on Lockwood’s face is unsmiling but thoughtful – if you really look at him during this scene, you really feel for him. Jay says, “I haven’t got the words down yet. But I know what I want them to do. I’d like them to be sort of a personal testimony: the insanity of this world. I don’t know. It’s really far out. But, if I could just get it down, like it is in my head.” (A relatable creative desire if there ever was one). Jay asks George what he’s up to; if he’s still at his old job. George says he couldn’t take it anymore; it was wasting him and he tells him he’s broke. He asks (he says he feels weird about it) for 100 bucks. Jay generously gives it to him, smiling and telling him not to worry about it because everything is “going great for us” – his band. Jay is really sweet. It’s touching. Jay asks what he’s up to, what’s next for him:

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“I don’t know. I’m not gonna give up architecture really want to create something. I just can’t seem to wait out the 15 or 20 years it takes to establish your reputation and then for what? To design service stations and luxury motels? (laughs) I keep going around in circles I guess, trying to find out what the choices are, wasting a lot of time. Like this morning (laughs) – I did an incredible thing. I was in my car and I started to follow this …  uh nothing. It’s not very interesting.”

Jay presses that it is interesting and to tell him. George says:

“I was driving down Sunset, and I turned on one of those roads that leads up into the hills – and I stopped at this place that overlooks the whole city it was fantastic. I suddenly felt exhilarated. I was really moved by the geometry of the place; it’s conception, its baroque harmony. It’s a fabulous city. And to think some people claim it’s an ugly city when it’s really pure poetry, it just kills me. I wanted to build something right then, create something. You know what I mean?”

There is the exhilaration Didion spoke of – and George, rather poignantly, opening up to his friend about it. He really loves the city – he’s not cynical or hardened or beaten down by it yet. He’s not felt the deep darkness via the terrors of 1969 Los Angeles yet (chiefly, Manson), but there’s a lingering dread nonetheless. I suppose some found this scene (as well as others), corny or earnest, or “too European,” but I find it moving, particularly in that George (via Demy) is sticking up for Los Angeles. Already at this point, Los Angeles was a city people professed to hate, smudged with smog and a hollow Hollywood dream (of course there is so much more to Los Angeles than Hollywood – if people and certainly cynical visitors would actually drive around more, and take in neighborhoods – they might understand the city’s history and multi-cultural population). This persists – this tired Alvy Singer thought, that Los Angeles’s only “cultural advantage is that you can turn right on a red light…” Not true – about the cultural advantage, the right on red is valid and damn crucial if you’ve ever spent time driving in this place.

In the excellent, essential essay-film Los Angeles Plays Itself, Thom Andersen discusses Model Shop and says he took issue with it when he was younger, not for its love of Los Angeles, but for its limited terrain. But, apparently, with time, he came to find the film moving. As he stated, “Jacques Demy loved Los Angeles as only a tourist can, or maybe I should say, as only a French tourist can. I resented Model Shop when it came out because it was a West Side movie. Its vision of the city didn’t extend east of Vine Street. But now I can appreciate an early poignant Los Angeles, a city. It’s totally incoherent, but if you live here, you have to be moved.” As I’ve said, it is moving. And if you don’t live here, you can be moved as well.

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Demy relocated to Los Angeles in the late 1960s for a time – and he really got into the place. With the success of his third movie, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (also nominated for four other Oscars – Best Song, Best Original Score, Best Scoring – Adaptation or Treatment and Best Screenplay), Columbia Pictures called, and Demy took it. (Before Model Shop, he had also directed another sublime musical,  The Young Girls of Rochefort, released in 1967 – nominated for an Academy Award for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture) And so, he, with his wife, the brilliant filmmaker Agnès Varda (Model Shop should also be viewed with Varda’s impressive work made in Los Angeles – among them, 1967’s Uncle Yanco, 1968’s Black Panthers, 1969’s LIONS LOVE (…AND LIES), 1981’s Mur Murs), they found inspiration all over the place – fell hard for it. And like Lockwood’s George, they would drive.

As Varda said, “We had a convertible car. We were playing the game. Then I would drive. I would take Pico and go from the ocean to downtown. I would do Sunset Boulevard that turns a lot. I would do all the streets – Venice Boulevard, etc. I was impressed, absolutely impressed.” Demy spoke of driving as well, and how driving in Los Angeles was in and of itself cinematic: “I learned the city by driving – from one end of Sunset to the other, down Western all the way to Long Beach. L.A. has the perfect proportions for film. It fits the frame perfectly.”

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You see this in Model Shop’s opening shot – set next to George’s Venice Beach home (with an oil rig out front) – Demy films a majestic crane pull back on a camera car as Spirit’s “Fog” plays, and we take in the location and atmosphere of Venice, riding along smoothly with the camera. It’s already automobilized, and it serves a vehicular connection to the opening shots of Lola and Bay of Angels. With Bay of Angels (one can’t help but think, now, as we watch Model Shop, of the City of Angels) the camera executes a vertiginous, virtuoso pull back from Jeanne Moreau walking the boardwalk in Nice, Michel Legrand’s music soaring until we no longer see her, and the city flies by. In Lola, a white Cadillac drives into the frame, a man in white gets out of the car and looks at the sea. He jumps back in, and the camera does a similar crane pullback (albeit much shorter) as Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony plays. With Lola, we see the man in white actually driving the car, and the camera is then mounted on the back, we follow the Stetson-hatted man, eyeing his view. All three movies seem to be taking in surroundings via car (in Lola, most directly), and with music, and it’s so beautiful; so, stirring. Demy’s oblique visual rhyming between the three movies deepens the poignancy. He loved camera movement and music and Max Ophuls (Lola is dedicated to the great Ophuls), and he used all of this love in such a personal way. There is such coveting and longing and missing in the cinema of Demy, making vehicles a perfect encapsulation of this notion – cars and people are in some ways, to use the time-worn Longfellow phrase, ships that pass in the night, only there’s much more connection than we may have thought.

George drives back up to that swanky house in the hills and, this time boldly rings the doorbell.  He asks about the woman who was there earlier, this morning, and the response from inside is – there was no woman here: “nobody came.” As if George saw a ghost. He leaves. He drives again, this time stopping to get a hamburger. By coincidence, he sees the woman in white walking down the street – he leaves his hamburger behind and follows her. She walks into the model shop, and he follows. Inside it’s all red velvet wallpaper with pink curtains and violet paint, black and white photos of models on the wall. A blonde woman in a mini skirt and black boots sits on the couch, watching the T.V., barely noticing him. She nicely hands him a photo album – he can pick his girl – and he comes across Lola. He picks her. It’s a bit creepy and sad and all too easy – you feel for Lola and how vulnerable she is. You wonder if he thinks the same, but he’s stone-faced, probably out of nerves, like young Harrison Ford and Jacques Demy before him. He gets the lowdown – you rent the girl 20 dollars for a half hour, 12 dollars for 15 minutes, six exposures of film, camera and film included. He picks 12 dollars (he just borrowed 100 bucks; you are very aware of George’s relationship with dough right now). A guy older than George in a suit and loose tie comes out with his camera, turning it in after his session. He looks more like the type you’d imagine would haunt this kind of place in 1968 – a guy more of the 1950s, an Irving Klaw enthusiast. The place is never presented as sordid, but certainly detached, and not exactly George’s scene. Demy neither romanticizes the place nor insults it or the women there – it’s just work. And when George is alone in the room with Lola, the exchange is realistically awkward, even a bit lifeless.

He doesn’t really attempt to talk to her, he doesn’t really act like a man who is smitten, he seems sour, disappointed even, but he takes all six photos, Lola posing however she likes because he doesn’t care what she does. It’s all very chaste, Lola mostly wrapping herself in her fluffy robe. It feels off seeing either of them in this place – George is more at home in his car and Lola seems like she should be anywhere else, dancing, smiling, not just posing – if we’ve already seen Demy’s Lola, we are wondering about where she lives, where her son is, if she’s happy. What happened to Michel? If we haven’t seen Lola we just find it even more mysterious. When George is down to his last shot, the conversation goes:

Lola:  You have only one left. If you want me to do anything…

George: I like what I’ve got.

Lola: You don’t seem particularly interested in photography.

George: I’m not. I’m more interested in you. Besides, I don’t think the guys who come here give a damn for the art of photography, do they?

Lola: I don’t judge the customers. It’s not my concern.

George: It’s kind of degrading work, isn’t it? Why do you do it?

Lola: To make my living… But I don’t like this word, “degrading.” After all, I don’t know what YOU do, to make your living.

George: Me? Nothing, right now.

Lola: Then you don’t run the risk of degrading yourself by working.

George: You’re French.

Lola: As you can hear.

George: I followed you this morning.

Lola: Yes, I know… Good-bye.

George: Good-bye.

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Good-bye. And that is that. He doesn’t reach out to her, doesn’t ask for her number, more about her life, nothing. Part of this seems like a good idea – he shouldn’t bother this woman – he shouldn’t walk in and ask aloud if what she does is degrading. But he’ll learn and he’ll think more. George seems slightly surprised by his actions, albeit in a low key way. Demy shows George leave, driving again, taking the film to the designated place on Selma Ave. He drives to extend his car payments (he needs to pay by that night, or his car will be taken away the next morning). He drives more and then winds up at his friend’s alternative newspaper, where they offer him some work. (His friends are so damn nice) “I got the draft hanging over my head, makes it kind of tough to plan anything,” George says. The men discuss the draft, their status within it, and the Vietnam War, and you think anything “heavy” that is said in this picture, well, it’s understandable with this kind of worry darkening these young men, who are trying to smile and laugh it off as much as they can. But not all of them can. And then George calls home, borrows money from his mother (whom he clearly loves) and learns from his dad (whom he clearly does not relate to) what has been hanging over him – that his draft notice has come.

Will George see Lola again? Indeed, he will, as he ventures back to the model shop and finally asks her out. One of the reasons? One he says, anyway? They both share a love for Los Angeles. Lola says she is leaving, anxious to return to France, but admits she will miss the city, that she loves Los Angeles. George says, “Well, that’s surprising, you know, most people hate it. Well, now, there’s two of us that like it. And that’s a good enough reason to get on out and have a drink, isn’t it? When the two meet in the parking lot, their cars vertical to one another, they share some of their life story. How old they are (or around how old they are), what they’re up to, what they came from, and what they are, or are not looking forward to. George, the dismal draft, and Lola (stage name – her real name is Cecile, she tells him), she yearns to see her son whom she’s not seen in two years. He’s about 14 now. It’s a beautiful scene, all the more affecting that that they open up via car – it jives beautifully with Demy’s vehicular lyricism, and we wonder if they would have only opened up while sitting behind the wheels of their convertibles. It shows how cars are not necessarily disconnecting; there’s a feeling of protection that makes one feel safe to utter things they may not have said. So much so that George tells Lola that he loves her.

“You’re very nice. And what you say is very moving. But you don’t know me at all,” a very sweet but tentative Lola says. She wisely understands that he just needs someone – perhaps it’s not just her. He becomes defensive, particularly about the kind of life she lives (she sees this as insulting – it is), but boy, does he not get how much more Lola knows about life and love than he does. But by the time the movie closes, I think he will get it. And he’ll, actually, truly, love her as a person, not as something he needs.

George and Lola will go to Lola’s place and talk more. Here, Aimée is absolutely lovely and heart-rending, showing George pictures of her past (pictures straight out of the movie Lola) – of her ex-husband, Michel, of her former lover, a sailor (also from Lola) whom she intended to catch up with in Chicago, but found out he died in Vietnam. You spy Roland in a photo, but she says nothing of him, but you also see a French magazine with Catherine Deneuve on the cover – Roland’s future. She talks about Michel leaving her for Bay of Angels’ Jackie and how depressed she was. How she has given up on love. It’s such a beautiful performance, and with the imprints of Demy, his movies and Aimee’s Lola (“Lola in L.A.” Varda called in in The World of Jacques Demy) deepening this woman who works at something so simply called a “model shop.” You never know who you might drive up next to in a parking lot in Los Angeles, and George has just found a woman of multitudes. They spend the night together, and George gives her his last bit of dough to help pay for her trip to France. When he returns home, his girlfriend is leaving him (all for the best – even if she is supposedly going to sell out, you don’t not feel for her either) and he’s hoping to see Lola one more time. He calls up her place but her roommate informs him she’s already left. George (and Lockwood especially) is really poignant at this moment. Lola may have given up on love, but she does not believe in giving up on trying, and that really sticks with George. He says to her roommate:

“I just wanted to tell her that I loved her. I just wanted her to know that I wanted to try to begin again. You know what I mean? That I was, I just wanted her to know that I was going to try. Yeah, it sounds stupid, doesn’t it. But, I can, you know. I mean, I personally can. Always try, you know. Yeah, always try. Yeah, always try.”

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Much of Demy’s work is concerned with similar thematic elements: the near misses of love, the aching, longing nature of our solitude and the casual destruction of our destiny by the arbitrary intervention of a superstructure: morals, conventions or the military draft to fight a war that feels alien or downright wrong to us. He seems to really believe in love, or the hope of love or the transforming, musical exaltations of love (and pain), and he believes in trying. Driving forward? Perhaps, within the steel and glass, rolling alongside us in a busy, deceitfully sunny freeway is the very soul that could redeem us from this world and ourselves.

At the end of Model Shop, you see outside of George’s house – his car is, finally, being towed away. And we wonder what George will do now – regarding the draft, regarding his wheels. He takes his freedom very seriously and he loves to drive…  What now? We’re not sure. But we do hope he will drive, again, with his own car, wherever he wants to go. And that he will, indeed, try …. “Yeah, always try.”

From my New Beverly piece.


My Criterion Essay on Jean Arthur

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"She was a nonconformist too . . . a believer in her own intuition. Intuition, that’s what Joan’s voices were. She never killed anybody. She just wanted everybody to go home and mind their own business.” -- Jean Arthur on Joan of Arc

Up now! My Criterion essay on one of my favorite actresses -- the complex, charming, beautiful, funny, serious and seriously smart iconoclastic, Jean Arthur -- a fascinating actress and woman of duality and depth -- for Criterion's Jean Arthur series currently playing on their Channel

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Read my essay here:


Sinatra in a Small Town: Suddenly

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Originally published at The New Beverly

Suddenly is a sleepy little 1950s town that’s a stand-in for any kind of sleepy little 1950s town in the U.S.A.  Not much happens in Suddenly, to the point where residents seem a little bored with life, enough to feel either half-awake or, combustible.

Like any town populated with humans, there’s an underlying threat – often from within themselves: Lust, violence, madness – you feel it creeping – the shadow around the corner on those sunny Anytown, U.S.A. streets. Nothing can be so wholesome and so golly-gee and so clean. Nothing ever is. A little boy wants a cap gun, a sheriff wants love from the little boy’s attractive widowed mother, the widow doesn’t seem to want any of it. That’s pretty normal, but when the widow, still bereft over her husband, who died in the Korean War (hence, her understandable hatred of guns and violence and war movies and men taking up her personal space in the market), denies the sheriff – presumably, a man she’s dating – he states dramatically and rather morbidly: “You’re digging a big black pit and shoving us all down into it.”

When a motorist passes through Suddenly, he asks a police officer about the town’s unique name. He inquires: “Suddenly, what?” as if words need to follow. The police officer, chirpy and wise-cracking enough, tells the man that the town’s name is a “hangover from the old days.” The town once offered excitement – even illicit, violent excitement – and the cop seems a little proud of that. The officer continues: “That’s the way things used to happen here – suddenly. Road agents, gambler, gunfighters …  Things happen so slow now the town council is figuring to change the name to Gradually.”

That exchange happened before we meet the widow, the boy and the sheriff and it’s clearly a portent of things to come in this movie, called Suddenly – things that come not so gradually when a skinny, blue-eyed psycho enters the picture. I wonder if David Lynch saw this movie, what with the corny jokes and the small-town wholesomeness, evil lurking right around the corner. The police officer appears, perhaps, bored with the town, but the sheriff is fixated on the possibility of violence; of dark forces, and how one must combat them. (I kept waiting for the sheriff to utter something Twin Peaks’ Sheriff Harry S. Truman would say: “There’s a sort of evil out there. Something very, very strange in these old woods. Call it what you want. A darkness, a presence. It takes many forms but… it’s been out there for as long as anyone can remember and we’ve always been here to fight it.”)

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The sheriff is Tod Shaw (the great Sterling Hayden – likable and commanding, and just a little wonderfully off, he often appears to know more than what he’s letting on, or grappling with things far more existential than we may realize), whose feelings for widowed Ellen Benson (Nancy Gates) are laid out there for God and everyone to see. He simply tells her he’s in love with her. He’s also gone way too far by buying her son, Pidge (Kim Charney), a cap pistol, entirely against her wishes. He’s attempting to push his views on her about boys growing into men and understanding when violence is necessary, when he may need to defend himself, that kind of thing. “You can’t wrap the boy in cellophane.” He urges. A pacifist, she’s not buying any of this, but Tod persists: “When a house is on fire everybody has to help put it out. Because the next time it might be your house!” These officers of the law are practically willing what will happen.

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What will happen, and, soon, is the aforementioned skinny blue-eyed psycho showing up in his impeccable fedora with his thugs, posing as the FBI. It’s a big day in Suddenly among those who know – the President of the United States is riding through on train, stopping off to take a car to his destination – a fishing vacation. Ellen and her father, retired secret service agent, “Pop” Benson (James Gleason) are busy in their house, arguing about how to raise Pidge (Pop thinks she’s overprotective and lectures her, morbidly: “There’s cruelty and hatred and tyranny in the world. You can’t make believe they aren’t there. And Pidge has got to learn what is the law and what isn’t the law so he can defend it.”). Another typical day in the Benson house – working on the broken television set and arguing about Pidge’s exposure to the vicious, malevolent world (side note: the television set will become an instrument of violence). And now, this is the second man in Ellen’s life to practically summon the fedora-wearing psycho, John Baron (Frank Sinatra) to invade their home and prove their point.

The Benson house is situated in a place with a terrific vantage point to see the president disembark from the train, and we’ll soon learn that Baron has been hired to assassinate the president (For whom? He doesn’t know and he doesn’t care, he just cares about money. He also enjoys killing). And, so, things get really dark, really fast. After Tod happily drops in with Dan Carney (Willis Bouchey), who is leading the secret service team deployed in Suddenly (Carney used to work with Pop – he wants to say hello), Baron breaks his cover and kills Carney. He injures Tod’s arm and threatens to murder Pidge. He then takes everyone hostage. At this point, well, I think Pidge has now had his exposure to violence. Tod? Pop? Is that enough for you?

But it’s not going to stop there.

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Directed by Lewis Allen, Suddenly is a tense and claustrophobic, and sometimes strange experience (and sometimes questionable – there’s a lot to wonder why Baron wouldn’t just kill everyone right away but, apparently, he enjoys an audience) with a crazy-eyed, grinning Frank Sinatra taking over the movie. It’s a powerful, enthralling performance, one of Sinatra’s best (he really should have played more villains), in which the character’s Napoleon complex insecurities (and bad upbringing – his parents were both drunks) are on full display, weakening him with his need to talk. Creeps like him often need to talk and brag and undo themselves and Hayden’s sheriff smells it the moment Sinatra starts gabbing. Unlike other domestic hostage movies, such as The Desperate Hours or He Ran All the Way, in which Humphrey Bogart has his own kind of appeal and John Garfield is attractive and downright sympathetic, there’s nothing attractive about this guy (aside from Sinatra just looking cool and beautifully tailored), and, even with his hard childhood, there’s very little that’s sympathetic either.

Allen knew that Sinatra would be the center of this picture, not the leading man, but the star, and he lights him and shoots him (alongside cinematographer Charles G. Clarke) with great care – all others staged to revolve around him. It’s an intriguing stylization, both real and dreamlike – Sinatra, much smaller and slighter than Sterling Hayden (which isn’t hard – Hayden was 6’5”), appears, at times, diminutive, all mad dog bark, but he’s got bite. Even if Hayden looks like he could just casually swipe one paw and bump him across the room, Sinatra remains threatening.

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Sinatra also steps up to the camera- right up to the lens, in fact – nearly looking into it – an unsettling, confessional act, almost breaking the fourth wall – it’s stagey but captivating almost as if he’s trying to take it the viewer hostage too (“It’s Frank’s world, we just live in it,” indeed). His nerviness, his suit, his hat (which he takes off maybe only once in the film – when he first enters the house, and then never removes) places a certain style, an big-city menace to the Norman Rockwell-esque America held hostage here – his very presence making the picture more cinematic.

Around this time, movie director Allen was starting with his long career directing television (“Bonanza,” “The Rifleman,” “Route 66,” “Perry Mason,” “Mission: Impossible,” “The Detectives” and many, many more, though he was still making movies, A Bullet for Joey, IllegalAnother Time, Another Place and Whirlpool followed Suddenly), and you can see how well-suited he is for the medium. You also see his clear filmic talent and his staging skills, which he acquired in the theater – the place he started from (Suddenly feels adapted from a play even if it wasn’t). Englishman Allen transitioned into movies in the early 1940s, and in 1944 and he directed his first feature film, which is largely considered his greatest film and one of the greatest of the genre – the beautifully crafted and genuinely scary ghost story, The Uninvited. He made some comedies, but his strength, from what I’ve seen, was in suspense and melodrama.

Two of his best pictures, for me, next to The Uninvited, are the blazing technicolor film noir, Desert Fury, starring Burt Lancaster, Lizabeth Scott and Mary Astor, and So Evil My Love, a gaslight noir featuring a wicked Ray Milland. Another dark, interesting picture is Appointment with Danger, starring Alan Ladd as a cynical U.S. Postal Inspector who spits misanthropic lines to a nun he’s protecting with almost comedic affect (“When a cop dies they don’t list it as heart failure, it’s a charley horse of the chest,” he says). Whatever drove the director (when discussing his career in a 1997 interview he said, “That was the way of the studios. You took whatever they gave you … From the time I came to Hollywood, I was never out of a job. The William Morris office treated me as one of their pet directors, and there was always a job for me. When they couldn’t get a movie for me, they got TV.”) he excelled in stories featuring seriously dysfunctional relationships, creating a tense, sometimes gorgeously atmospheric setting and getting some fine performances out of actors.

The aesthetics of Suddenly aren’t immediately evident – it could be described as nice-looking and workmanlike – but there are many compositions that are striking – any time Sinatra frames the window or just stands in the middle of the set – actors orbiting around him – the leanness of his scarred face.  Remarkable.

Suddenly falls in the more hard-boiled realm of Appointment with Danger or one of Allen’s later, lean and mean The Rifleman episodes, but it has traces of gaslight noir, even if unintentional, as the men here are all incredibly manipulative towards Ellen (the poor woman hears enough about understanding violence from the sheriff and her pop, and even Sinatra, who at one point, dares her to shoot him with his gun – knowing she won’t… until she has to).

I don’t think that Allen bought the artificial gee-willikers attitude of the town, making the darkness presented here fascinating in terms of Eisenhower America. Though people discussed such things in the 50s and some movies discussed gun violence (like George Stevens’ Shane), the characters are having the kind of arguments one would hear more openly in the 1960s – about pacifism and duty towards your country. That kind of talk makes Ellen, in this world, a traitor, possibly even a communist.  Pop admonishes her peace talk so much that he says her deceased husband would be “ashamed” of her. Jesus, Pop. Ease up.

But of course, the movie ends with a confirmation of everything the men are telling Ellen: That violence is indeed sometimes necessary, even inevitable in life. OK, got it.

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However, this is where Sinatra’s WWII psycho war veteran – who states that he loves to kill people and that the war gave him that opportunity – acts as a counterbalance. A natural born murderer who, in one discussion with Hayden (who also served), weighs in on how it’s legal to murder for your country, but not in civilian life.  Sinatra’s character presents an either intentional or accidental rebuke to the necessity of violence; the acceptance of it.  A man who is drunk on violence, who feels like a god with a gun, who has set up a high-powered sniper rifle to kill the president (Is he possibly working for the communists? The movie never says but you feel red scare paranoia laced within all of this).

There’s no telling that her heroism hasn’t traumatized her for life. Still. It’s not only Ellen that saves everyone, it is Pidge pulling a toy gun switch with the gun Pop has hidden in his drawer (everyone’s so used to that cap gun that Sinatra doesn’t notice) – and that will turn the tables on the villain too. The comfort of 1950s Americana – mom, the television set and the normalcy of a toy gun – that’s what brings down the attempted assassination of the president.

Since the movie will, later, be viewed with a likely apocryphal story attached – that Sinatra, so upset by the assassination of his friend John F. Kennedy, had this picture withdrawn after he learned Lee Harvey Oswald watched the movie before he killed the president (Sinatra also starred in another plot to assassinate the president – John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate) – it carries a darkness with it that the filmmakers and stars could not have foreseen, even if none of this is likely true.

By the end, order is apparently restored: Ellen is softer on Sheriff Tod (they kiss and promise to go to Church), Tod is less frustrated over Ellen and little Pidge will surely get more of his way regarding toy weaponry. Well OK. After all that horror. So … is this a happy ending? I’m sure it’s supposed to be, and if you are pro-gun, you may love that Ellen has supposedly seen the wrongs of her anti-gun ways (I don’t love that – I want Ellen to keep fighting for her beliefs – she’s admirable up against all of these men hollering at her). But nevertheless, the entertaining movie sticks with you and makes you think, even beyond its more direct message. Is there something more ambiguous here? I wonder. And, so, after a massive body count, answering the near invocations of the men around her, the town seems to have earned its name back.

Funny name for a town, says a motorist, prompting  Sterling Hayden to answer: "Oh, I don’t know about that."


Marriage: Dorothy Arzner's Craig's Wife

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“I did not want an actress the audience loved. They would hate me for making her Mrs. Craig. Rosalind Russell was a bit player at M-G-M, brilliant, clipped, and unknown to movie audiences. She was what I wanted.” – Dorothy Arzner (in a 1974 interview with Karyn Kay and Gerald Peary)

Harriet Craig’s vase. It’s such an obvious object, both literally and symbolically in Dorothy Arzner’s Craig’s Wife (1936) – but a powerful object and one that we look at time and time again, waiting for that precious, terrible thing to be shattered on the floor. Knowing it will.

That dark rather mysterious vase is beautiful – so large and precious that it needs to be positioned, oh, so deliberately, in just the right spot for proper viewing pleasure. That vase is status, of course (How expensive was that vase? Is it a museum-worthy antique?), but it’s also something Harriet needs to touch and feel, seemingly on a daily basis. There is some passion connected to that vase as OCD as she is about it. And that vase seems both totemic and vulnerable, seductive and terrifying. That vase is Mr. and Mrs. Craig’s marriage, yes, of course. But, as you go along with the picture and get to know this marriage and these two individuals, you don’t see it as any kind of tragedy that the thing will break – for either Mr. or Mrs. Craig. Smash it.

Indeed, the film opens with that vase as housekeeper Mrs. Harold (Jane Darwell) exclaims, in horror, to the other, younger housekeeper, Mazie (Nydia Westman), never to touch the thing: “She’d about lose her mind if she ever thought you laid a finger on it!” scolds Mrs. Harold. She continues: “Never forget! This room is the holy of holies!” She’s being both serious and overly dramatic for comedic effect, since Mrs. Craig is not there (one can’t imagine what would happen if Mrs. Craig had heard the very likable Mrs. Harold’s tone). But without introducing Mrs. Craig, herself, first, we are introduced to her living room: all classical symmetry and color-control. A little joyless (it doesn’t have to be) but, lovely.

Indeed, Director Arzner shows us that holy room in all of its shimmery glory – the living room becoming a museum hall with that enormous vase on the mantel, a chandelier, a grand piano and a satin chaise lounge in the middle of the room (I think of both a fainting couch and a psychiatrist’s office when I see this piece of furniture – almost as a performative fuck you via Mrs. Craig – there will be no fainting or psychoanalyzing going on in this house – that is not until the end when she really needs to collapse on the thing). There’s also a table and a nice set of chairs likely no one sits at, and statues and busts and candles and other beautiful objects, collected, displayed like one arranges and mounts taxidermy. This is not a critique – this is Harriet’s work of art.

It’s a gorgeous living room, if you could call it a living room, no one seems to live there, however, they do argue a lot in it – feel fear in it – whisper in it…

But her home – it’s Harriet Craig’s pride, dammit. A representation of herself. Presented as uninviting and rather remote and maybe even horrifying to some, but not to Harriet. In her home, she rules – she likes to talk to people in that living room, she holds court there, often while looking in the mirror, right where that beautiful vase is. Double beauty and control reflected, and the danger of everything cracking, all in one shot. As said, this is her art piece, her expression – even she herself is her own creation and she fits in all glamorous and stately with her beautiful pieces. The film’s sets were designed – uncredited – by William Haines (a past MGM star who was ousted from the profession in 1934 for bravely not denying his homosexuality – he became a successful interior designer, working with his life partner Jimmie Shields) and his work here is gorgeous. He understands both the beauty and the remoteness needed to be expressed, but it’s not tacky, it’s both ornate and spare – a paradox. I don’t begrudge Harriet’s obsession with this space because it’s so aesthetically impressive. Honestly, you either love this room, or hate it. I love it. Even if it could be viewed as her mausoleum.

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Harriet Craig (Rosalind Russell) is married to her very sweet, wealthy husband, Walter Craig (John Boles) and has clearly made the “perfect” home for herself. Underscore herself. We don’t see Harriet right away – we see Walter with his down to earth Aunt, Ellen Austen (Alma Kruger), eating dinner together, seemingly enjoying the night, and a night away from Harriet, who is visiting her sick sister and niece in Albany. At least Aunt Ellen is enjoying Harriet being away. She doesn’t like her. 


Walter, who is very likable and who loves Harriet dearly, probably misses her a little, but is off – giddily – to play poker with his friend, Fergus Passmore (Thomas Mitchell), an activity he rarely does anymore because, well, obviously… Harriet. We wouldn’t suspect anything too controlling about this at first – lots of married couples slow down their social lives independent of their spouse – but that vase has already told us what kind of woman Harriet Craig is. And now we’re already worried about Walter and that poker game.

But the movie kicks things to a different level of intrigue, and concern, as another wife is presented, in some ways, quite the opposite of Harriet (or maybe very much the same, if Harriet didn’t care so much about social norms), who is eager to leave her husband with his poker-playing pals. Walter heads on over to Fergus’s house, and rather than meeting up with a fun-loving Fergus, ready for the game, he sees a tense, angry man, already pissed off that other friends aren’t coming over – what’s wrong with all of these men? We are all, of course, wondering – wives? Do these no-fun wives make them stay in? (Oh, it’s always the wives, right? That’s so unfair, really…) But then the film shows us this – that Fergus is despairing over his wife, Adelaide (Kathleen Burke), who is all gussied up and beautiful – on her way for a night out in town – and does not care about the possible male shenanigans about to happen. Fergus is upset that she’s, well, acting more as a man would.

Fergus, begs her to stay in. He leans over her, looking all sweaty and desperate, as she primps in the mirror (Arzner uses mirror shots many times in this picture to great effect) – pleading for her to stick around. Why? We have our suspicions that will be soon confirmed (another friend spies her with another man). She leaves, of course, and Fergus isn’t just upset, he’s disturbingly upset – a twitching mess. “Run on back to your boyfriend, dear,” she says, as she leaves to meet “Emily” at the theater.

Already, you feel the combustion of this marriage – something is going to break, and soon. And already you see there is something dangerous and creepy about Fergus. This is a terrible marriage and the way Thomas Mitchell powerfully shows how on edge he is – you don’t immediately think it’s all his wife’s fault, even if the knee-jerk reaction would be to think that she’s dishonorable or, a worse word someone else might use. So, what happens when the wife comes home? A violent end.

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If you’ve seen many Dorothy Arzner pictures in which marriage is a central plot, you’ve seen a lot of problems within the institution. For the matter of space, I will not mention all of them made by the pioneering female filmmaker (whose impressive career spanned silent films in the late 1920s, all the way to talkies in the 1940s. She started out typing scripts, became a writer and also an expert, innovative editor, working side-by-side with director James Cruze. She then moved on to directing pictures starring Esther Ralston, Clara Bow, Ruth Chatterton, Claudette Colbert, Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, Russell, Lucille Ball, and more.  She was the first woman to join the DGA, and she later worked in theater, taught film and directed Pepsi commercials for friend Joan Crawford. Read more about Arzner at the  Women’s Pioneer Films Project – you’ll be glad you did).

Here, I am focusing on Craig’s Wife (which showed during this, then, New Beverly triple feature of marital, well, marital hell -- that I was writing about here), but I must speak more of hell, chiefly,  the aptly titled, Merrily We Go to Hell (one of Arzner’s best pictures) – I thought of this one because this is the kind of marriage Harriet Craig could not even fathomMerrily We Go to Hell (1932) features charming, drunken cheater Fredric March marrying wealthy and sweet Sylvia Sidney (who loves him) only to put her through the wringer with all of his problems and dalliances. She decides to try out a “modern marriage” complete with affairs.

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That’s not always a bad idea, but that’s not for everyone, and, in the end, not really for her. (God bless her for trying though). By the end of the picture, she loses a baby and he, apart from her (he goes through a lot of changes himself – financially as well), feels terrible about everything and in spite of her father’s protestations – busts into her room to reconcile – they’re going to make it work, he hopes. March says, quite convincingly and movingly, that he loves her, and she says to him, with sweetness, “Oh, Jerry, my baby.” And then pats his cheek and says again, “my baby.” He’s the baby she’ll have to look after now, even if he’s gotten his shit together, supposedly. She still loves him but will that work? We’re not so sure. This couple has broken many vases, so to speak.

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In the 1930 Sarah and Son (playing in a triple feature  with Craig’s Wife and Honor Among Lovers – what a night  of bad marriages!), poor Ruth Chatterton’s awful husband  (Fuller Mellish Jr.), actually ditches her and sells their child  to a rich couple, and Chatterton (who is fantastic) spends  the movie trying to find the little boy (March also serves as  love interest here – a better man than the horrible  husband  who, in a complex, moving scene, dies in a military hospital). And in Honor Among Lovers (1931), Claudette Colbert does not take up with her rich boss, Fredric March (again), who professes his feelings for her (and they do have chemistry), but then fires her for marrying another man (pretty bad behavior but he will make up for it as the movie goes on – to the point of literally taking a bullet).

In Honor, that “other guy” (played by Monroe Owsley) who maybe on the surface for Colbert (for, like, a second, to me) seems OK, turns into a cheating thief, a guy who even lies and rats out his own innocent wife –  he is ten times worse than March’s Merrily We Go to Hell louse. At least Merrily’s March is actually charming and repentant. There is no appeal with the guy Colbert marries. She made a mistake because … life is complicated that way. (On that note – March did tremendous work with Arzner – he also starred in The Wild Party opposite Clara Bow – seek out all of his movies directed by Arzner.)

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But these movies have somewhat nicer endings. In Merrily, the marriage might be saved, and in Sarah and Son, Chatterton (who is constantly punished throughout this movie – life is such a struggle and we root for her in every moment) will be reunited with her son in an incredibly dramatic manner (by water) and find love with lawyer, March. In the elegant Honor Among Lovers, Colbert ends the relationship (finally – you spend the movie almost in disbelief how devoted she is to such a jerk), going off on a sea cruise with her old boss, March, who never stopped loving her. See, if you find the “right” person, or if you finally do the right thing, a good relationship just might work, or at least be possible – these movies could be saying. However, I don’t think these resolutions, as presented by Arzner, are all that easy. Will these relationships end in good marriages? Should marriage always be the end-game? Arzner is complex with these issues – male/female relationships are not always stabilizing, obviously, and they may not always be the answer either, even if you’re off on a sea cruise with March.

But then comes, Craig’s Wife – Arzner’s full of presage and inexorability.

In Craig’s Wife, Harriet Craig already knows how de-stabilizing marriage and relationships can be. She has vowed – willed herself – to always keep the upper hand: To always maintain control. She knows that people marry for love, sure, but what kind of torment could that lead to? She doesn’t want to be Merrily’s Sylvia Sidney, despairing over March, who can’t even show up to their engagement party on time, or sober. She sure as hell doesn’t want to be anywhere within the vicinity of Ruth Chatterton in Sarah and Son, with a husband so abusive he actually steals their baby. And no way is she going to allow her husband to lose all of their money – as in Honor Among Lovers. For god’s sake, no one is allowed to even touch her vase. When a man delivers a trunk and drags it, scratching the impeccable flooring, she seems about ready to kill him (to be fair – I was cringing when the guy was scraping the floor with the trunk, as many others would). So, no way is she going to even allow one iota of disorder. Even the roses her sweet neighbor, the widow Mrs. Frazier (a lovely, charming Billie Burke) brings over, are removed. How dare the maid place them in the living/showroom without asking? And besides, petals will drop all over the place. Unacceptable.

I mean, obviously, “lighten up, Harriet,” we think. Well, that’s not Harriet’s way. She’s made herself pretty and tough. We do see that her husband – he is a good man – he is worthy of love, and we grow to care about him; we do want him to finally stand up for himself. But why did he marry her? He didn’t see any of this coming? His Aunt sure did.

And yet, while the movie could present Harriet as a near-monster, this horrible, castrating wife, there’s a human being in there too, and Arzner (and clearly Russell) wants us to see this. As manipulative as she can be, there is feeling inside Harriet, a woman with a troubled past and genuine fears about surviving as a female in such an un-equal, male-rigged world. Though her husband is a loving person, what Harriet might really crave is the love and warmth of female friendship (not that a man can’t be a part of that, again Walter here is good-hearted – but her family of sister and niece offer an interesting dynamic here).

When she leaves her sick sister’s bed, early, the scene is incredibly sad (This is your sister, Harriet. She’s suffering.) Harriet doesn’t like suffering, however, of any kind.  She doesn’t like to see it. She avoids chaos and the unexpected. She saw her mother suffer through life; she saw that her father cheated on her. Saw him “mortgaging her house for another woman.” And she saw that her mother died of a “broken heart.” Harriet has hardened herself, and you understand. That is not going to happen to her. No broken hearts. Not for a man.

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When traveling by train back from visiting her sister, Harriet breaks down her marital philosophy to her rather shocked niece, Ethel (Dorothy Wilson) who, one senses, Harriet is molding and manipulating, or at least giving some hardened advice to. Ethel is discussing her fiancée and how much she loves him, and here’s how the conversation goes:

Harriet: Does it ever occur to you Ethel, that love, as you describe it, this feeling you have for this boy, is a liability in marriage?

Ethel: Good heavens, Harriet, what a terrible thing to say! You married Uncle Walter because you loved him, didn’t you?

Harriet: Not with any romantic illusions dear. I saw to it that my marriage was a way towards emancipation for me. I had no private fortune, no special training, so the only road to independence for me was through the man I married. I married to be independent.

Ethel: Well, you don’t mean independent of your husband, too?

Harriet: [Primping her hair in small compact mirror] Independent of everybody.

Craig’s Wife was adapted (by Mary McCall Jr.) from the 1925 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by George Kelly (Grace Kelly’s uncle) and, according to what I’ve read (chiefly, Judith Mayne’s indispensable biography/critical study, “Directed by Dorothy Arzner” which helped me greatly while researching this piece), Mayne felt that Arzner and Mcall Jr.’s version tweaked the play’s tone towards a more critical take on society rather than just a damnation of Harriet. From Mayne:

“In the play, Harriet is a one-note failure, a woman doomed to a life of bitter loneliness, just like the widowed Mrs. Frazier across the way. Again, Mrs. Frazier represents Harriet’s one last chance for human community, and the film reads less as an indictment of a willful woman than as a critique of the culture in which so few choices are available to a woman like Harriet.”

“So few choices” for sure. As I said, Harriet has seen her mother rely on a bad husband and then, die. Harriet’s exchange with her niece about independence in the movie (I’ve read Kelly’s play and Harriet does discuss independence in the play as well – in a much lengthier, materialistic manner) – it is shrewd, it is cold, but not as simply villainous as one might think. Not if you think about it further. Biographer Mayne felt Arzner’s film wasn’t taking a shot at early feminism: “In Kelly’s play, Harriet’s argument for marriage as a business contract and a home as capital is presented as a caricature of feminism, whereas no such intimation is made in Arzner’s film.”

I agree with Mayne in many aspects when it comes to the film because as you may think you’re about to watch a movie about a controlling monster, and you do feel yourself wishing Harriet would soften a bit (I wish she had more friends, at least!), you also understand the tough world she came from – even if she’s not romantic at all, and in terms of control, seriously overdoing it. And, while a fearful force, and at times, a horrifying one, the brilliant, beautiful Russell is domineering, yes, she’s quick and mean, but even charmingly acerbic at times – you come near liking her in moments. Her “fuck you” laugh as she leaves a room is both unsettling and fascinating.

But this woman Harriet Craig would probably be hard to like, outside of your fascination; she’s intriguing as hell (it really depends on how the actress reads much of these lines, too, her facial expressions, that kind of thing – and Russell is so impressively complex here). We don’t have to like her, however. But we’ll see by the end, that this is a sad, lonely, woman, deep down, and she’s perhaps not as cruel as she seems. She at least doesn’t need to be so cruel, she doesn’t need to be so controlling, as unfair as the world was to her mother. This, she may learn.

But to say Harriet is lonely – she’s not just lonely because her husband leaves her – that will likely wind up a relief for everyone. You don’t get the sense that either one is going to run back into each other’s arms and apologize, or promise to make changes. She seems so lonely, rather, when her sister dies. That is when Harriet completely loses it and collapses on that chaise lounge in that beautiful, pristine living room, in tears. The beautiful room is useful, you see.

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In Arzner films, female relationships can be complex, very real, vital, and in Craig’s Wife, we witness what I feel could be a joyous companionship happening between two characters (this is in the play as well). Later in the movie, when everyone is sick of Harriet, when they can’t stand living there or working with her and are departing (either by being fired or of their own accord, her niece takes off too), beloved housekeeper Mrs. Harold decides to go on a trip around the world with Aunt Ellen. Mrs. Harold is done enduring Mrs. Craig (she’s especially upset after Harriet fires Mazie) and Aunt Ellen has made it known that she not only dislikes Harriet, but is quite unhappy stuck in this gorgeous house. That two unattached women, of different classes, who are now running off together, could be read a couple of ways – romantic or platonic – and in either case, it’s a wonderful moment when Mrs. Harold tells Harriet her plan.

Harriet: Where are you going with Ms. Austen? I didn’t know she planned to keep house.

Mrs. Harold: She don’t. We’re going to the Ritz Carlton Hotel in New York and then we’re going all around the world as soon as she can get the tickets.

Yes. I love that these women are going to travel the world. Talk about independence.

There’s another moment that really stands out in Craig’s Wife. When Mitchell’s Fergus is under obvious suspicion that he murdered his wife before killing himself – the police are sniffing around the Craig household. Harriet presses Walter to not get involved – what would people think? Walter was there that night, quite innocently, witnessing Fergus’s erratic behavior, and he’d like to discuss. But Harriet doesn’t even care about guilt or innocence, she only cares how their social standing could be affected by any sort of scandal. Walter, honorably, argues with her and we get why this would be the breaking point in their marriage. The movie is placed within a short time frame in the life of Harriet Craig so Walter must move from adoring husband to a man who sees the light, pretty quickly. The murder, though quite a dramatic plot device, works. He’s been keeping a lot bottled up, but a close friend’s fatal, violence-ending marriage would obviously, be the thing to shake one up – in every aspect of his life.

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Later on, when Harriet and Walter read in the paper that, indeed, Fergus’s gun shot the bullets, Walter says something that I wasn’t expecting in a movie involving two negative marital situations – really, two negative wives. He, in a way, argues for Fergus’s philandering wife, Adelaide, rather than damn her as just a harlot or femme fatale (and, from what I remember, this is not explicitly stated in the play on behalf of Adelaide – not in this way). As Harriet reads the paper:

Harriet: Oh, so the bullets were from his gun. Murder and suicide. Well, if anyone ever had a good reason for doing a thing like that it was Fergus Passmore.

Walter: You think so?

Harriet:  You know yourself how that woman behaved.

Walter: Yes, I know a lot about Adelaide. She fell in love with Fergus. Something went wrong, he failed her. She couldn’t love him anymore so she fell for another man.

Harriet: Does that seem right to you?

Walter: No, it doesn’t seem right. But I think I can understand it. There was one thing about Adelaide, she wrecked herself and Fergus because she loved somebody.

“She wrecked herself and Fergus because she loved somebody.” That’s quite an open-minded thing for Walter to say in a film of 1936. You don’t get the sense that he agrees she had it coming; that she should have merely respected her twitching, angry out of control husband. No, as a humanist, he understands her. She needed to love and to be loved in return (as the song goes). And so, does he. As much as we will feel for Harriet by the end, we feel something for Walter as well. Arzner does not oversimplify this.

But back to the vase.

It is at this point when Harriet learns that Walter is the one who smashed her beloved vase. (We know he did, we saw it, and it’s his big defiant act, also a bit terrifying) Fergus, it’s said, murdered his wife and took his own life with him. Walter, rather, murders that vase, leaves the broken pieces for Harriet to see, and then escapes the home and her, in hopes to find, one day, presumably, love. He also leaves Harriet with what she seems to love most – the house.

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So, Harriet has the house – and she can re-adjust the busts on the mantel (we see her do this) as she likely, plans which new vase she’ll purchase and proudly showcase again. But … now Harriet realizes that she does need someone or at least something, but not necessarily her husband. What? And then … she receives a telegram about her sister’s death, she is despondent. She needed her sister. Obviously. She needed to have expressed more love for her. Overcome with grief, trembling with the telegram, her widowed neighbor, Mrs. Frazier (Burke) enters the house again, and with roses. We could read this is as tragedy – Harriet is now all alone with only the widow next door.

We can only imagine what Harriet is thinking as she takes in her surroundings, letting the tragedy and loneliness sink in. She tells Mrs. Frazier her sister has died and that she, Harriet, should have done more. Mrs. Frazier, full of empathy, expresses her sorrow and asks her if there is anything she can do. Harriet is in shock – and says to herself, “I’m all alone in the house now.” Burke’s Mrs. Frazier has now slowly backed away, she is literally walking backwards from Harriet (it’s an incredible moment) full of sadness and really, fear, like … what do I do with this woman? Presumably, Mrs. Frazier wants to give Harriet her space, but it reads deeper than that – and she also looks a little horrified by Harriet’s absolute. truth and raw feeling. Harriet continues, “I’m all alone here so if you wouldn’t mind, I …” And then Harriet turns to look. But Mrs. Frazier is gone.

When Mrs. Frazier leaves – again, this plays more heartbreaking than Harriet’s husband exiting the house. That needed to happen. But Mrs. Frazier with her roses? We don’t want her to leave.

Russell is so magnificent; we are almost leaning in to observe her actions. Will she be defiant? Will she be stoic? Or will she let her emotions flow? In a brilliant moment of pantomime, Harriet rushes to the door, Mrs. Frazier’s roses cradled in her arms – and she sees the door shut. And then Harriet’s hand – it reaches out to … Mrs. Frazier, yes. But her hand is reaching out … to many things. In gorgeous silent moments, the camera fixed on Russell, her house, her living room, her anguished face filled with tears, Harriet is, again, reaching out. Her heart, her hand, her eyes… to the deceased sister, she can no longer touch, to the woman she could possibly be friends with. To that living room that now frightens her as she cowers next to it in the frame – afraid to enter it. It’s an extraordinarily moving ending where, in spite of everything, we hope that Harriet will weather this. We hope she’ll enjoy her living room again – that gorgeous Harriet space. A place where, perhaps, in the future, Mrs. Frazier might actually drop in to actually sit at the table and… talk.

It’s fascinating to watch Craig’s Wife today – and wonder how much Arzner, perhaps, rooted for Harriet – for all women, indeed. The movie had also been made in 1928 (directed by William C. deMille and starring Irene Rich and Warner Baxter) – that picture is now, alas, lost. The movie would be remade again as Harriet Craig in 1950, directing by Vincent Sherman and starring Arzner collaborator Joan Crawford (The Bride Wore Red) and Wendell Corey. For many years, I found the Sherman/Crawford version as equally as great as the Arzner/Russell version (maybe even more focused – and Crawford is superb), but watching Craig’s Wife again, I think there’s a bit more complexity to Arzner’s version. (That being said, watch Harriet Craig as a follow-up to Craig’s Wife if you’ve not done so because Crawford is excellent). Crawford’s take is perhaps better known since that era seems more the time to take on the perfect 50s housewife. And then of course, for better or for worse, the movie has been, through biography and gossip, intertwined with Crawford’s actual personality/persona. To some, it may even feel like a horror movie. But, by the end, I feel for her Harriet as well, as much as she terrifies, even reminds me of people I’ve met in my life.

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But Russell is so commanding, so smart, so stylish, so sly and strong,  that when she is slumped, in tears, when she is allowing such feeling to overwhelm her, you are gobsmacked by her emotion. As stated (and through multiple viewings), I feel obsessive, scary control and then, empathy for Joan in moments of Harriet Craig because Crawford possessed such tremendous vulnerability. But Russell knocks you for a loop at the end – you are not prepared to be that moved by her in the film’s final moments. It’s a tremendous performance.

Playwright Kelly did indeed write Harriet to collapse in tears at the end, the widow does come by, but Harriet does not reach out to her when the door closes. Instead, a very sad Harriet “steps up to the door and clicks the latch.” Harriet’s not happy, but I’m not sure if Arzner’s ending is what he had in mind (and I’m not sure if he ever saw the final picture). As Arzner told Karyn Kay and Gerald Peary in an interview later in her life:

“George Kelly had nothing to do with making the picture. I did try to be as faithful to his play as possible, except that I made it from a different point of view. I imagined Mr. Craig was dominated somewhat by his mother and therefore fell in love with a woman stronger than he. I thought Mr. Craig should be down on his knees because Mrs. Craig made a man of him. When I told Kelly this, he rose to his six-foot height, and said, ‘That is not my play. Walter Craig was a sweet guy and Mrs. Craig was an SOB.’ He left. That was the only contact I had with Kelly.”

We’re glad he wrote such a fascinating character, of course, to be adapted and played on-screen by three actresses who captivated (Rich, Russell and Crawford). And we’re glad that Arzner and McCall Jr. crafted a powerful, complicated picture, with Russel as star, and one that makes you think about love, marriage, independence, and yes, the meaning of such a beautiful vase.

If we feel for Harriet here, we only hope that Mrs. Frazier will come back. Could they become friends? Relationships – romantic or friendship – are never easy. And surely not with Harriet. But perhaps Mrs. Frazier’s roses can fill Harriet’s beautiful new vase of the future? The two women can look at each other in the mirror (and smile)? And maybe even plan for something to do either together, or on their own – supportive, but without each other. “Independent,” as Harriet stated earlier. Is that too much to hope for?

Originally published at The New Beverly 


Liz & Losey: Boom! & Secret Ceremony

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“So enough of films. This was prompted by my excitement about ‘XYZ’ [that it] will be a ‘big one’ for E [Elizabeth Taylor]. By talk of distinction and by talk of Oscars. I know she is brilliant in the film and I know the film is good but I thought almost as highly of ‘Boom!’ and that went BOOM.” – Richard Burton, ‘The Richard Burton Diaries’”

Liz and Losey. The dreams the two must have had. At least in 1967, 1968. Not in the aspirational sense (though they, actress Elizabeth Taylor and director Joseph Losey, had those of course – aspirations) but in the sleeping-hallucinatory-fanciful sense. The living of one’s life half as fantasia, half in reality. Not insanity, not entirely on a cloud – but in dreams – and, yet, dreams that are… honest, sometimes even brutal. To them. Asleep in bed dreams, drugged out in the hospital dreams, wide-awake dreams, drunken dreams, dreams inspired by decadent décor, jewels, headdresses, caftans, elaborate abodes, hallucinatory dialogue, trays of food, hair, wigs, makeup, mirrors, witches (of Capri), wild-eyed child/women/Mia Farrow, samurai swords, the sea, the sounds of the sea. The sound of … Boom! Their dreams – I am just speculating and creating my own fantasy and we won’t ever really know. A Secret Ceremony, indeed.

With their two films released in 1968 – Boom! and Secret Ceremony – I, again, can’t help but wonder about Taylor and Losey’s dreams. Not, just, what were they thinking (as some might ask – for both films are often met with such bafflement or derision or, of course, mystified love – money was part of it, if you do ask, as was art, which both movies aspire to and succeed at – I don’t care how bad some think either are – I love these films) – but what were they dreaming while conjuring these movies?

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These grand, decadent, perverse, and very lonely stories about lonely women living in big lonely homes facing loss and grief and trauma and inebriation and possible insanity and death. Losey had great success with Pinter, but in Boom! (based on the play The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore by Tennessee Williams) and Secret Ceremony (adapted from the story by the Argentine writer Marco Denevi, by screenwriter George Tabori), I thought, via esteemed film historian and author Foster Hirsch, of Pirandello, (Hirsch discussed Secret Ceremony as such, writing, “In its Pirandellian oppositions between appearance and reality, the story palpitates with fashionable modernist themes, but the parade of intellectual motifs has less substance than show…. Losey at his most pretentious.”). I wonder what Pirandello would think of these films? As Pirandello said:

“I think that life is a very sad piece of buffoonery; because we have in ourselves, without being able to know why, wherefore or whence, the need to deceive ourselves constantly by creating a reality (one for each and never the same for all), which from time to time is discovered to be vain and illusory . . . My art is full of bitter compassion for all those who deceive themselves, but this compassion cannot fail to be followed by the ferocious derision of destiny, which condemns man to deception.”

There is a “bitter compassion” to these films, a creating of a reality that may be illusory, by way of Losey and Taylor. Not an easy compassion, not a sweet understanding – a simultaneous delusion and honesty (it’s possible – and these two manage it – and it’s too odd to be merely pretentious, I think, or I don’t mind that either films could be considered pretentious – I’m still working this out). With that, there is a raw vulgarity within the pictures that is, indeed, brave – especially on the part of Elizabeth Taylor who is unafraid of appearing unlikable. Or unrelatable (oh, stars, they are just like us!). And, yet, she hollers, she moans, she even, in Secret Ceremony, belches. It’s a unique mixture of glamour and uncouthness that still feels refreshing (have I seen any other beautiful movie star act like this? And in such a natural, not trying-to-be-gross-or-funny way? To my mind, no).

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Still a movie star in the late 1960s, always a hot news item (she and Richard Burton stalked by paparazzi, still, post-Cleopatra), but an actress allowing audiences to see something darker inside that decadence, sadder, meaner, hilarious too, and to some, fading (though she’s gorgeous – critics were sometimes cruelly remarking about her weight creeping up on her – she looks staggeringly beautiful in both films). She is glamorous times ten, and yet, profoundly human.

Taylor, even if she didn’t write either movie, knew the jabs against her, and seemingly took them on – even on film. At one point in Secret Ceremony Robert Mitchum’s terrible Albert (Mitchum is a scary force – mightily creepy here), calls her something bovine: “You don’t look like my late wife at all,” he says, “She was well-bred and rather frail… you look more like a cow… Oh, no offense,” he continues, “I’m very fond of cows.” And then he moos. How awful. We shudder on behalf of her character, sitting on a picnic blanket in her brightly patterned dress enduring this (and much more when Mitchum’s character really let’s go with his repulsive talk), and we shudder on behalf of Taylor. And then we applaud her for taking that line in stride. And she often did. She would poke fun of herself in real life too – or at least comment on how people seem so stupidly obsessed with her weight. As Peter Travers wrote of Taylor, when she passed away in 2011:

“Nearly two decades ago, I enjoyed lunch with Taylor at a Manhattan restaurant where the stares of accompanying diners would have thrown a tower of lesser strength. ‘They just want to see how fat I’ve gotten,’ laughed Taylor, lifting one untoned bare arm for all to see. Taylor howled at their shocked reaction.”

My god, how can you not love her?

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But it must have hurt at times. This meanness towards her figure, as if, “How dare this beautiful woman pack on a few pounds! How dare she!” It did concern her health-wise (later on in her life she discussed her loneliness and weight gain with Elizabeth Takes Off, though she was worried about more than just her weight: ”’I was almost 50 when for the first time in my life I lost my sense of self-worth,’ she writes of her ‘gluttonous rampage.’ She was lonely and bored; she felt that her husband, John W. Warner, a Republican Senator from Virginia, didn’t need her.”) But you still hear that kind of “How dare she!” Again, I love that she howled at people staring. How dare they!

But back to Mitchum and that mean moo – it’s nothing like Noël Coward’s Witch of Capri in Boom! who calls for Taylor’s Sissy Goforth with a friendly, though bizarre birdlike “Yoo-Hooo-hoo!” and she answers back the same. (In real life Coward adored Taylor, more on that later), but both movies like to hear men emit animal-like sounds – it’s off-putting and nasty in Mitchum’s character’s case and sweet and then obnoxious in Coward’s (when his character is plastered – you can see why Taylor’s character begins to grow tired of him) and… it’s quite … something.

Well, the movies are, for lack of better words … quite something.

Boom! is often referred to as terrible, or so terrible it’s wonderful, or as John Waters (who famously loves it and has shown it around the world) said to me in an interview for Sight & Sound: “It’s so great and then so awful. So that means it’s perfect, really.” It is perfect, really. Whenever I watch it, I think of it being made in a different way and I think… no. It has to be THIS. So, yes, perfect.

Secret Ceremony offers more weird, gloomy perplexity to viewers over the sumptuous spectacle of Boom! (which provides more joy, in spite of its heroine dying) but it was also often considered a misfire too (particularly in the States at the time – a double dose of bombs via Liz & Losey). Though many take Secret Ceremony much more seriously than Boom! and consider it either an excellent Losey film, or at least a very interesting one, worthy of study and discussion (Indicator came out with a Blu-ray giving the film the respect it deserves), it’s still a curio to viewers. At the time, however, some did value the picture. Renata Adler said positive things. She wrote in the New York Times:

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‘[‘Secret Ceremony’ is] Joseph Losey’s best film in years—incomparably better than ‘Accident.’ The opulent, lacquered decadence works well this time, with Mia Farrow as a rich, mad orphan, whose mother Elizabeth Taylor pretends to be and, in effect, becomes. Robert Mitchum is good as Miss Farrow’s stepfather, in a relationship as violent and complicated as relationships in movies like ‘Accident’ and ‘Reflections in a Golden Eye’ tend to be. The lines are spoken so slowly, with such long pauses in between (it is as though a speech guidance drama class were reciting immortal iambic pentameters) that one thinks for a time that all this affectation is going to be unbearable. But there is something not at all arbitrary and far-out at the heart this time, with people – essentially confidence men – drawn into the frank needs of the insane, until their confidence roles become a personal truth about them.”

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Wisconsin-born Losey, who directed, among other excellent pictures, The Boy with Green HairThe ProwlerThe Big NightMThe CriminalAccident, The Go-BetweenEvaThese Are the DamnedThe Servant, and more, was blacklisted around the time his incredible, powerful remake of Fritz Lang’s M was released. HUAC target Losey would leave the country instead of naming names for that ghastly, career-destroying committee. He moved to Europe and become one of the more interesting, daring, and unique filmmakers of the 1960s (there are a lot of informative, deep-dive studies on Losey – essays, books – Tom Milne’s Losey on Losey is a great, earlier one – published in 1967 – as is James Palmer and Michael Riley’s The Films of Joseph Losey, published in 1993, to name a few). The great Losey is a fascinating director to dig into – and I include Boom! and Secret Ceremony – most certainly as something to really dig into – and both, like all of his work, even his flawed work, exceptionally interesting.

In fact, Boom! and Secret Ceremony are, to me – I can’t use the word bad. And I won’t – because I don’t think either are bad. Many would likely agree with me regarding Secret Ceremony but would draw the line with Boom! – even if they love it – but in the case of Boom! I feel like it’s too otherworldly, too its own unique creature to be bad or terrible or the worst. And often well-written. Good seems too simple a word but… it’s not just good, it’s grand.

Both pictures are unforgettable. Eminently watchable. Weirdly wonderful.

And in many cases, touching and thoughtful. By the end of both movies, I find myself moved. For Taylor’s character and her pain and injections and rejection of death (even chucking that X-ray machine off the cliff – did I get that right? An X-ray machine? Whatever it is, she doesn’t want to see that – I get that), for poor, traumatized Mia Farrow’s character and those rows of pills she will swallow only to call out to her mama (who isn’t Taylor but has finally become, here, her sole protector, her real mother), for Richard Burton’s Angel of Death dropping of the ring in the glass and thrusting it into the ocean (it’s a beautiful moment). And then I extend being moved to the real-life characters behind the camera – to Tennessee Williams and to Joseph Losey for making these movies in the first place.

As I read in David Caute’s Joseph Losey: A Revenge on Life, Losey, feeling defensive and hurt, wrote to Tennessee Williams of Boom!“I’m appalled for all of us, but particularly for you, by the scurrilous, ignorant and personalized reviews which I’ve seen … I am struck by the fact that the ‘critics’ seem determined to destroy successes and idols that they have built up – namely the Burtons, you and me.”

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Those who find Boom! dreadful likely see this as Losey not taking responsibility and just lashing out at critics – they don’t get it! – that kind of response. And I can see that point because it’s a hard movie to get. Williams liked the movie and considered it the best adaptation of his work (hey, are we going to argue with Tennessee Williams on this?) Of this, John Waters said: “And Tennessee Williams did say … that it was the best movie ever made from his work, and I think maybe I, and Tennessee are the only people who agree with it…”

And yet, watching Boom!, to basically live in its odd tone and intent, to drink in the scenery and costumes, and to watch and listen to Taylor and Burton, I do wonder how they (the filmmakers) would consider the cult-embracing of the picture now (Williams died in 1983, Losey in 1984, Burton in 1984). There are plenty of people who maybe don’t get it (and many who probably do – or in their own way) but they love it regardless. Taylor, for one, heard about the love.

Film critic and author Alonso Duralde, an earlier champion of Boom! (we must thank our champions who are instrumental in spreading the word and finding these movies, helping them to get properly released, so Boom! fans, thank Mr. Duralde) tracked down a print and showed it at the USA Film Festival in 1995 in Dallas, Texas (Duralde was artistic director for five years there). He had John Waters introduce the picture (what a night that must have been). Duralde said in his fascinating featurette on the Boom! Blu-ray release (from Shout Select – which also features commentary by Waters) that Elizabeth Taylor was actually in town that night – at a department store promoting her perfume (!). They tried to get her to come but, to no avail. However, according to Duralde, she was asked about the showing, and said something like: “I hope they had a good laugh.” Oh, Ms. Taylor.

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In an interview with Vice, John Waters said that he met Elizabeth Taylor once and told her how much he loved Boom! Waters continued:

“…And she got real mad and shouted, ‘That’s a terrible movie!’ And I said ‘It isn’t! I love that movie! I tour with it at festivals!’ Then she realized I was serious. Because it is a great movie. I feel like if you don’t agree with that I hate you. If you don’t like ‘Boom!’ I could never be your friend. Right now, I live by the water and every time I see a wave hit a rock, I shout, ‘Boom!’ like Richard Burton.”

The full quote of Burton from the picture is: “Boom. The shock of each moment of still being alive.” Well, it’s not a bad line, I don’t think. He says “Boom” again – and Taylor says it back to him at one point (of course, this seems so underscored since it became the title of the picture). In her character’s case, there is a shock, perhaps, of still being alive, and, I suppose, a strange celebration of still being alive, so why not make something of this whenever you can? Why not say “Boom?”

While making Boom! Richard Burton wrote in his diaries:

“E [Elizabeth Taylor] and N. [Noël] Coward are madly in love with each other, particularly he with her. He thinks her most beautiful which she is, and a magnificent actress which she also is. We all saw rushes [of ‘Boom!’] and some assemblage last night. It looks perverse and interesting. I think we are due for another success particularly E. I was worried about her being too young but it doesn’t seem to matter at all.”

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Boom! was, at first, not a movie to star Elizabeth Taylor or Richard Burton. Taylor’s character, Flora “Sissy” Goforth, the millionaire multiple widower ruling over her elaborate, gorgeous, guarded compound on an isolated island in Italy was much older, and dying – around 75-years-old in fact. Taylor was 35-years-old, and though she’s still playing a dying woman, she looked healthy. But what does that mean? Looking healthy? She is so convincing in the movie that she doesn’t sound healthy, so no matter of how she looks. And, Taylor, in real life, had been near death a few times before this. She nearly died of pneumonia during Cleopatra. I also recall a photo of her with Burton – around 1973 – being wheeled in a fur coat (I am not making light of this – the woman was often ill – and likely needed a nice wrap).

Anyway, as Burton said, her age doesn’t matter at all since the movie works on a symbolic/surrealist/artistic level, and this is how one looks (or rather, how Elizabeth Taylor looks) and dresses when one is sick. I sure would if I could – in gowns designed by Tiziani of Rome – with help by Karl Lagerfeld. It is not a surprise then, that the picture is also a fascination for those in the fashion world. As Amy Spindler wrote (in 2001) of Boom! for the New York Times Magazine:

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“The film was all André Leon Talley, the Vogue editor, wanted for Christmas. Anna Sui and Marc Jacobs had told him about it while dining at Mr. Chow’s. Cathy Horyn, the New York Times fashion critic, tracked him down a copy. Anne Fahey, the public relations director of Chanel, also helped join in the search… Let’s call it free-associative filmmaking. It’s all Mediterranean-Gehry architecture accented with key pieces of the era, like the Arco lamp by Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni. And there are hints of Calder and Chagall and even Easter Island sculptures — although ‘Boom!’ was filmed in Sardinia. And while the Roman couture Taylor wears certainly looks like her own by Valentino (the huge rock on her finger and the Shih Tzu running around look like her own, as well), it is credited to an atelier called Tiziani of Rome. Talley called a few days ago to say that while he was expounding on the virtues of ‘Boom!’ to Karl Lagerfeld, the designer said he had a hand in the costume designs. He was working for Tiziani at the time. Alexandre of Paris did Taylor’s hair. Bulgari supplied her jewels.”

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There are many reasons to admire Boom! but the very idea of an inspired André Leon Talley talking to Karl Lagerfeld to discuss the picture and then Lagerfeld just dropping an, “Oh, yes, I helped design the costumes” (I imagine this dropped very casually – I have no idea – I just like thinking it this way)… and after seeing those fantastic costumes… how can you dismiss such a movie? I mean, on design alone, it’s worth watching.

So, Taylor – fine. Great. She’s perfect. Cast correctly – never mind her age. Who else could wear that Kabuki-inspired costume and elaborate headdress with such ease? She even removes it – likely annoyed by its weight – and even that seems like, “Sure, place that thing anywhere. Tiziani and Lagerfeld can make another one.” She didn’t say that, but that just occurs to me…many things do when I watch Boom!

And then there’s Burton’s character – poet Chris Flanders/The Angel of Death who was younger in the play than Burton (Burton was 42 at this point – not old, but older than Taylor – obviously this had to just work differently). Burton’s voice is brought up in the movie – his voice as a seductive force. And it is. Watching him saunter around Sissy’s property in the samurai robe and carrying a samurai sword (the outfit belonged to one of Sissy’s dead husbands – and is sent down to his quarters after dogs nearly rip him to shreds) should feel ridiculous, and it is, I think, a bit on purpose. But it becomes as natural as her extravagant attire. Also he appears to like wearing that outfit – for, presumably, the way it compliments his strides, the way it looks cool in the air, the way he looks rather handsome in it, and for the sword, surely an easy indicator of Freudian phallic armament, or an instrument of divine justice, like an arch-angel. Perhaps some viewers wish he were the younger stud, but I find his handsome, world-weariness befitting in this dreamscape. He’s seductive, he’s compelling, he certainly never appears bored. And he and Taylor – they do have chemistry – even when she’s yelling at him. Especially when she’s yelling at him.

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Tennessee Williams, who had put on the play twice – first in 1963 with Hermione Baddeley and Paul Roebling, then in 1964 with Tallulah Bankhead and Tab Hunter (both times the play didn’t fare well, receiving mostly bad reviews), was thinking, for film, more of Simone Signoret and Sean Connery. Losey, later, wanted Ingrid Bergman and James Fox. According to Sam Kashner’s and Nancy Schoenberger Furious LoveElizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century: “Bergman had turned down the role as too vulgar (‘I can’t say the word ‘bugger’ without blushing,” she’d told the director).” Another who famously turned down a part was Katharine Hepburn for “The Witch of Capri” (the part was originally written for and played by a woman) – Hepburn was reportedly insulted by the offer. In a bolder choice of casting, Noël Coward was offered the part and agreed (according to Caute’s Losey biography, Dirk Bogarde was asked first and said, “No, thank you!”), and the gender of the character changed.

And so, went the shoot, which is a story in itself… and then the story. How to describe? Flora “Sissy” Goforth (Taylor) is, as stated, a dying multiple widow/millionaire recluse, who has, rather symbolically, taken refuge on an island of her own. She’s living there, like a mythic, capricious creature with a coterie of servants tending to her, both visible and almost invisible. Her head of security is Rudi, a little person with a gun (played by Michael Dunn), and she recites her memoirs to her secretary, Miss Black (Joanna Shimkus), or “Blackie,” as Sissy calls her. It is upon this island that a dark stranger/poet arrives, or rather, trespasses, invades – both seductive and aloof (and hungry – it takes quite some time for Sissy to order him some food – she instead, drinks a lot. And takes pills. And yells for injections). This man that might be death itself, as indicated by his nickname “The Angel of Death” (Coward’s Witch of Capri fills Sissy in on the grim details of the women this Chris Flanders has visited before her).

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What follows is a game of seduction and finality, a stylized game of wit, caprice and carnality as Burton talks much, and in his way, coaxes Taylor into accepting the possibility of death. She has been pushing it away -who wants to think of that – and would like death on her own terms (who wouldn’t) – and is generally in a foul mood as she recollects her past. Well, she’s not feeling well. She hollers at her doctor, her servants and Blackie – she hollers at the sky. One of the most incredible moments comes when Sissy orders her morning needs:

“Now tell them to bring the table over here, so I can put my chair in the shadow when I want it in the shadow. My skin’s too delicate to be in the sun for more than half-hour intervals. Now tell them what I want put on the table: a cold bottle of mineral water, suntan lotion, cigarettes, codeine tab, a bucket of ice, a glass, a bottle of brandy, my newspapers. The Paris Trib, The Rome Daily American, The Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Express.” 

This provokes laughter for being so … demanding of course, and then for being delivered with such unhinged anger and brashness on Sissy’s part. It continues when she notices the mobile Burton’s poet has made (Sissy has yet to meet him – he’s down in the guest quarters) and asks Blackie, “What’s that goddamned thing?” When Blackie informs her it’s a mobile to give to Sissy, she says to her, “Does he seem like some kind of a nut case to you?” (I think that’s a very good question, frankly.) It continues on with Sissy: “Help me up, will you? The sun’s making me dizzy. Oh… God damn, you… broke the skin with my ring!”

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I mean, everything, everything is wrong and annoying to Sissy. But people do act like this – I guess seeing it on screen and with such poetry – it’s wonderfully discombobulating.

Sissy is walking back into the house/compound and demands, “Bring a telex report out to me.” She then bumps into a servant with a tray and furious, yells the movie’s most famous insult: “Shit on your mother!”

(Try not yelling that after seeing this movie. Try. You won’t be able to resist.)

Sissy continues damning the world with: “God damn it, I’ll sign myself into a criminal institution!”

When she finally meets up with Burton’s Chris – the power play between the earthly and the eternal, the perishable and the sublime, is enacted by all characters in hyperbolic and, occasionally, moving ways. Burton’s Angel of Death (whom we are constantly befuddled by – is he evil? He’s not good, necessarily. What the hell is he?) takes from Goforth what one might presume to be her earthly vanity and power – he removes/steals her jewels. He speaks a beautiful, succinct parable – perhaps one of the best monologues in the film – and tosses her diamond-studded gems to the everlasting tide and the crashing waves below: Boom!

There’s so much to discuss and discover with Boom! (the wonderful music is one – by John Barry), the gorgeous cinematography by Douglas Slocombe, the costumes (as stated earlier), and the dialogue – both overwrought and weirdly beautiful- but also, funny. There’s an exchange between Chris and Sissy that I just think had to be funny. As Chris, with that gorgeous Burton theatrical lilt, recites Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan, a stately pleasure-dome decree. Where Alph, the sacred river, ran through caverns measureless to man down to a sunless sea.” Taylor’s Sissy simply exclaims, befuddled or perhaps making fun of him, her voice rising:

“WhaaAAAT?”

I think many understand that question. But to some of us – in a glorious way – we want to figure out, at least some, not entirely, some of that … “WhaaAAAT?” Which brings us over and over again to Boom!

Thinking they had something interesting on their hands (they did!) and a possible hit (alas, not a hit – at all), Elizabeth Taylor thought it would be good to work with Losey again. From Caute’s Losey biography:

“Late in 1967, while in Rome dubbing ‘Boom!’, Losey was with the Burtons in the Grand Hotel when Elizabeth Taylor remarked (it is said), ‘Why don’t we do something again?’ No more inclined than Winnie the Pooh to remove his head from the honey pot, Losey remembered a script by George Tabori originally written for, and turned down by, Ingrid Bergman. For Losey and his flamboyant designer Richard Macdonald, ‘Secret Ceremony’ was to be the second décor-riot of the ‘time of the Burtons.’ [Producer] John Heyman’s role was to raise the money and assemble the cast: ‘I was the shoehorn,’ he says. Universal put up the cash – several months before ‘Boom!’ hit the rocks.”

That Taylor was intrigued by such challenging, strange material – and that she used her star power to, essentially, help Losey get these odd movies made is to her credit – so the Boom! / Secret Ceremony double dose of 1968 makes that year in movies most intriguing to me. It should be appreciated.

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The great award-winning screenwriter, director, producer and ultimate cineaste Larry Karaszewski (he of the classic Ed WoodMan on the MoonThe People vs. Larry FlyntBig Eyes and one of this year’s best movies – Dolemite is My Name) has discussed his appreciation for Secret Ceremony on Trailers from Hell. I love how he describes this period of Taylor, who was, at one point, the most famous woman on the planet – both as a movie star and as a tabloid queen, thanks to her infamous marriage to Eddie Fisher (who was before married to Debbie Reynolds), winning an Oscar for Butterfield 8 and then dumping Fisher for her highly publicized affair with Burton on the set of the grandly expensive Cleopatra (a whole other story – and one I wrote about, in part, in regards to Walter Wanger’s (with Joe Hyams) My Life with Cleopatra: The Making of a Hollywood Classic for the Los Angeles Review of Books), and their marriage. And then, acting opposite Burton, she won her second Oscar (for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in which she is indeed brilliant) – she’s a movie star, a serious actress and a source of never-ending public fascination. But as Karaszewski says:

“… And, bam! Something changed, and she never quite made another good movie again. She became some sort of alcoholic celebrity monster, so famous that she couldn’t really play normal, and the pictures she chose to appear in are some of the oddest movies ever made. They’re almost their own genre – weird and depressing …” 

He cites Secret Ceremony, the trailer and movie he digs into, as one of them.

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And he’s right – it’s a depressing movie. Much sadder, and in many ways, much darker than Boom! If Boom! has sunlight and sea and Richard Burton’s lulling voice to carry you to death, Secret Ceremony has grey skies, construction sites and sad public buses (terrific cinematography by Gerry Fisher), a sick-o, somewhat terrifying Robert Mitchum (who is fantastic here), and sad Mia Farrow hollering, in death, alone in a house for any kind of mother she will ever have. Though Sissy must face death in Boom!, she’s at least able to breathe in the air, gaze at the ocean, be mindful of a cliff without balustrade: “I’m frankly scared of a cliff without a balustrade…” (after Boom! that has become a forever favorite word for me – balustrade). In Secret Ceremony, Taylor’s character is left on a sad little bed by the end, reciting a fable.

But there is glamour here, on the part of Taylor, as her costumes are splendid, and seem to grow more beautiful and intriguing as the movie goes on. The controversial Camille Paglia discussed Secret Ceremony in Penthouse, in 1992, and she highlights just how powerful a screen presence Taylor was:

“One of the most spectacular moments of my movie-going career occurred in college as I watched Joseph Losey’s bizarre ‘Secret Ceremony’ (1968). Halfway through the film, inexplicably and without warning, Elizabeth Taylor in a violet velvet suit and turban suddenly walks across the screen in front of a wall of sea-green tiles. It is an overcast London day; the steel-grey light makes the violet and green iridescent. This is Elizabeth Taylor at her most vibrant, mysterious and alluring at the peak of her mature fleshy glamour. I happened to be sitting with a male friend, one of the gay aesthetes who had such a profound impact on my imagination. We both cried out at the same time, alarming other theatregoers. This vivid silent tableau is, for me, one of the classic scenes in the history of cinema.”

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And there are parallels between the two movies. In keeping with Losey’s idea of edifices acting as surrogates for the human mind, in Secret Ceremony, two women are thrown together by fate into a striking, decadent mansion in London (another house as character as in Boom! – another stranger entering the house and undergoing power plays). One, Leonora (Elizabeth Taylor), first clad in black, is a religious lady, but a lady of the night who has lost a daughter and seems to be repulsed by the brutality of men – probably for good reason. Watching her remove a long blonde wig at the beginning of the picture and vigorously washing her face in the mirror seems to speak of an alternate reality – or a role playing – she’s furiously scrubbing away – at that moment. The other one, Cenci (a wild-eyed Mia Farrow – cast right before Rosemary’s Baby was released and a huge hit –  according to Caute’s biography, Losey, as yet, had only seen her on Peyton Place) is a daughter who has lost a mother and roams aimlessly, at the mercy of scavengers. She, with her long black hair (the long dark hair to Leonora’s long blonde wig from the beginning) spies Leonora on the city bus, Leonora’s dark hair wrapped up in a black scarf and … she just thinks … that’s her mother. Her dead mother. Both women wear black – and watching Farrow’s Cenci follow Taylor’s Leonora is haunting – as if the two are going to merge at one point – there’s already mirroring going on here and the movie holds our interest, right away.

Cenci is a stunted child – her age defined in her twenties but enacted as if she was prepubescent. Farrow is quite good enacting trauma here – sexual trauma – and her scenes that are deemed possibly seductive with Taylor could be read in myriad ways – lovingly needing a mother, needing maternal touch, acting out her own abuse, or childlike, confused – or all of it. She is certainly not well; she is certainly traumatized – her problems are deep. At one point she feigns pregnancy with a stuffed thing under her dresses.

Both Cenci and her mother’s fortune seem entirely unguarded and vulnerable, which really underscores the power of this movie – just how vulnerable both Cenci and Leonora are – in their grief, in their station in life, and in their dealing with predators. And the automatons Cenci plays with – seen so often in the picture – are characters themselves – sometimes tinkling with music box tunes, sometimes simulating movement, but not truly alive. As if these have been the only friends Cenci has ever had. The only things she can trust.

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And, so, a psychodrama starts to develop between Cenci and Leonora who is a facsimile of her dead mother – and, in many ways, Cenci herself. What’s so moving, is, after Leonora enters the grand home (and of course helps herself to Cenci’s deceased mother’s fabulous clothes and a gorgeous white fur coat), bit by bit she grows protective of this woman/child and projects so much upon the young, odd woman, as if by saving her, she can save herself, and regain the grace lost with the death of her daughter. The vulgar, dirty world, which encircles the mansion (in real life Debenham House, a fabulous convolution of architectural styles in West Kensington), invades the power play between the women – an ambiguous role-playing ceremony that tries imposture as a way to reach real healing. You play my mother; I play your daughter… maybe we can save each other?

But even more darkness descends with Albert (Cenci’s stepfather, played by Mitchum), who insinuates himself, perversely with his flowers – and then in an abusive, invading manner – becoming the catalyst for tragedy. There’s also Cenci’s two vermin-like antiquarian aunts who scavenge routinely the diminishing splendor of the desolate mansion—it’s touching when Leonora sticks up for Cenci to these women – women who seem to laugh off the perversions of Albert, as if Cenci should know better. Leonora says, aghast: “But Cenci’s still a child!” One aunt says, “Cenci a child?” And the other states that Cenci is 22-years-old. Old enough they are saying. Never mind this is her stepfather taking advantage of a damaged young woman. Leonora says, “Well, she’ll always be a baby to me.” And then one aunt says, rather ominously, “Crazy people never look their age.”

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Cenci has gone crazy – from grief and abuse by the hands of Albert, who has been violating Cenci for – we don’t even know how long – and from who knows what else. Leonora yells at Albert: “You dirty bastard! You raped her!” He then laughs, “I couldn’t rape a randy elephant. I’m much too tentative. I need encouragement. And I loved her. I always loved her…I make her feel like a woman. What do you make her feel like? A retarded zombie?” Defiant, she says “I tried to protect her from…” Albert cuts her off, calling her a “mysterious bitch,” and, again, a “cow” and tells her to leave Cenci … with him. Leonora wants to continue protecting her (quite understandably). Later that night, however, Leonora forcefully pulls the fake baby out of Cenci’s clothes – and Cenci, upset, will order her out. “Why are you wearing my mother’s clothes?” Cenci asks. ‘Get out.”

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The world and its dark desires prove too much for Cenci’s fragile mind, and she – in a complex scene (lining up pills, treating a visiting Leonora like a servant until she, in dying breath is calling for her again, as a mother – only it’s too late) – commits suicide.

And then… in a startling moment – Leonora – grieving another daughter – will kill Albert in a bizarre, but beautifully offhand manner. You don’t expect it. But the revenge is not so sweet – you get the feeling Leonora will never be the same (well, what is the same to her?), that she’ll never be “healed,” and yet, she may endure. In the final scene, she recites out loud a fable (about the two little mice who fell into a bucket of milk) – and, I suppose, she’s holding on to the merits of resilience and will. But she almost seems to be talking in her sleep.

The ending works wonderfully because, truly, watching this movie feels like a dream one had. A nightmare. And even describing it – I had to search – am I right? Am I remembering this correctly? I could very well not be.

Again, it’s a sad movie, and it’s worth noting that making the movie was hard on Taylor – she was in physical pain. As discussed in Kashner and Schoenberger’s Furious Love:

“Halfway through filming [‘Secret Ceremony’], Elizabeth could no longer work through her constant visceral pain. After a series of tests, Elizabeth was admitted to a London hospital for a hysterectomy. ‘Elizabeth had her uterus removed on Sunday morning. The operation began at 9:30 and ended at 1:00,’ Burton wrote in his diary, marking some of the most awful days of his life… ‘There was nothing before,’ he wrote when she was finally out of danger and recovering at home, ‘no shame inflicted or received, no injustice done to me, no disappointment professional or private that I could not think away…But this is the first time where I’ve seen a loved one in screaming agony for two days, hallucinated by drugs, sometimes knowing who I was and sometimes not, a virago one minute, an angel the next, and felt completely helpless.”

Secret Ceremony was released to mostly bad reviews (as stated, Renata Adler was kind, as was The Guardian) – still, Taylor, again, to her credit, continued to take on challenging roles, bizarre roles, and do so glamorously, even if critics began taking her apart – her acting, her looks – she was still her own creature, and, as Karaszewski astutely said, making movies that were something like their own genre.

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As Walter Wanger wrote of Taylor in My Life with Cleopatra, “It is not a far stretch of the imagination to compare Elizabeth with Cleopatra. She has the intelligence and temperament of the Egyptian Queen — and she has the honesty and directness that characterize all big people.”

As I wrote of her in regard to Wanger’s observation – in Boom! and, I will add now, in Secret Ceremony, Taylor showed us the dark side of excess, the desperation of love, and the disillusionment of lust and she is … fantastic. It is real, it is a dream. Liz & Losey – we don’t know their dreams but with these two pictures, here is the “the honesty and directness that characterize all big people.”

Originally published at the New Beverly.


Have a Violent Saturday Christmas

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Coming soon, Dec. 25 -- Ed Brubaker's CRIMINAL # 11 featuring my essay on Richard Fleischer's incredible Violent Saturday.

Happy Violent Saturday Christmas! Order here

A snippet from my piece:

As this film shows, being a lot of things is, as Shelley said, normal and human. The picture is both wonderfully melodramatic in the very best way and powerfully down and dirty violent – bizarre, darkly funny at times, and then bitingly real as only our sometimes bizarre, darkly funny lives can be. The robbery feels real, but it also works in a metaphorical manner. A nightmare. But a nightmare some people don’t wake up from. And one that lingers on Boyd’s mind with almost nihilistic reflection. The grief-stricken Boyd spits, “It’s so stupid and pointless to be alive in the morning and dead in the afternoon.” Pray for a peaceful Sunday. Or never pray again.

Merry Christmas!

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